Police Commissioner bacchanal
By COREY CONNELLY Sunday, August 5 2012
Already grappling with an apparent upsurge in murders, an unacceptably low criminal detection rate and mounting concerns about the integrity and functioning of the police service, the People’s Partnership (PP) Government is now confronted with another major and potentially costly challenge — the appointment of a Police Commissioner — in the wake of the resignation of Canadian Dwayne Gibbs and countryman, Deputy Police Commissioner, Jack Ewatski.
And, it’s anybody’s guess as to whether the new acting top cop, Stephen Williams, whom the former PNM government had turned down for the post, will have the mettle to develop strategies to tackle the menace and appease the population whilst attempting to restore the Police Service’s floundering image.
Gibbs and Ewatski, who assumed duties in September 2010, tendered their resignations to the Police Service Commission (PSC) on July 26, some 14 months before their three-year contracts expired. Their last tour of duty will be carried out on Tuesday.
Although Gibbs and Ewatski have said they quit their positions on purely personal grounds and had “no regrets” about their service to Trinidad and Tobago, there has been widespread speculation that the men were bullied into doing so, largely through what many consider to be their inability to get a handle on the nation’s crime situation.
It’s been no secret that those in authority have openly voiced their dissatisfaction with the performance of the two Canadians, including National Security Minister Jack Warner, who recently condemned the much-touted 21st century policing initiative.
Apart from the Police Social and Welfare Association, even the citizenry, who on Gibbs’ arrival in this country, warmly embraced him, later appeared fed up of his seemingly laxed and unconvincing leadership style in the face of a worrisome crime scourge.
Still, was the country fair in its assessment of Gibbs and Ewatski’s performance after just 23 months into their tenure, given the fact that they were both foreigners and were probably just getting acclimatised to the country, in the first instance?
Moreover, did the population, aware that the crime menace had been wreaking havoc in the country for more than a decade, have unrealistic expectations of the two men, especially since their immediate predecessors, all home-grown, had also fought unsuccessfully to get a grip on the menace?
In her televised, five-minute address to the nation on July 30 at the Diplomatic Centre in St Ann’s, in which she announced Gibbs and Ewatski’s resignations, Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar gave no indication that her Government was taken aback by the development but simply stated the facts of the resignations as it occurred.
She later said that the PSC was engaged in the process of appointing persons to fill vacancies which have been created by the resignations of the two officers.
“On behalf of the Government and people of Trinidad and Tobago, I wish to thank Gibbs and Deputy Ewatski for their service. We stand ready to support the new acting commissioner of police and other deputies,” Persad-Bissessar had said in her address.
PSC Chairman Professor Ramesh Deosaran said the commission will begin the recruitment process by having the Director of Personnel Administration advertise the post, a process which may not lead to the appointment of a new Police Commissioner, local to foreign, anytime soon.
Former PSC Chairman, Kenneth Lalla, SC, said on Tuesday that the circumstances surrounding the men’s abrupt departure remained unclear.
“I don’t know that we know the facts and we are not privileged to know what the facts are that led to the resignations of these two people. That seems to be within the confines of the Police Service Commission,” he told Sunday Newsday. “It may be that they (Gibbs and Ewatski) were justified in doing what they did in light of the circumstances in which they find themselves. But, as it is, I don’t think the public has a clue as to what are the factors leading to these resignations.
“What we are aware of is that there seems to be dissatisfaction with the functioning of the police service and the controlling of crime. But this has not been new. It’s been there before the two commissioners came.”
He said the question also arises as to whether the authorities have, in the past, been able to reasonably address some of the “inefficiencies” plaguing the police service.
Regarding Gibbs and Ewatski’s relatively short tenure at the helm of the police service, Lalla said it was foolish for many to believe that the men would have been the panacea for the crime scourge as well as the other ills plaguing the Service. He said, “I don’t know what made us feel that if we brought them here, we will be able to say “presto” and put a stop to crime.”
Rather, Lalla, who served as PSC chairman from 1990 to 2004, argued that crime was not simply about policing.
“The root cause of crime is social and no police service, in my view, is able to control the crime of the country when there is no social order or structure which identifies the factors which lead people to commit crime. So, it’s a broader issue,” he said.
The police service, he also contends, has not done well to preserve its reputation as a bastion of law and order.
“The police service has been in default or promoting good relationships between the police and the public so that there is a total breakdown in trust and confidence in the police by the public. That is an area that has not been addressed and a very fundamental area that needs to be considered,” he said. Lalla said such a scenario had serious implications for the role of civilians in assisting the police to detect crime.
“A policeman cannot be everywhere a murder is committed. He is informed of a murder and he gets to the scene. But what about witnesses, informants and persons who volunteer to provide evidence to the police or the person who committed the crime. If people do not have confidence in the police they will be very reluctant to have anything to do with the police,” he said.
Lalla noted that crime was also being committed by officers within the police service.
“So, if they are the leaders and they are committing crime, what would they leave for people outside there who would say, ‘If the police could do it, who are we?’ We hear nothing about that,” he said.
“Charity begins at home and if you want to be respected, you must show respect. You can’t speak about a police service with integrity when there is none. Or, if there is a paucity of it.” he reminded that there are several police officers facing charges before the courts.
Over the years, there have been several high-profile matters involving police officers.
On Tuesday, Lalla argued there were many factors which mitigated against a reduction in crime “and I don’t think a police commissioner can have a press button system.”
Alluding briefly to Gibbs’ address during an Emancipation function last week, in which the outgoing top cop said that the event was not merely a cause for celebration, but one where persons must also recognise their failure to produce, Lalla reasoned that no police commissioner can effectively motivate police officers if there are areas of dissatisfaction within the service. For example, he noted that many matters go to court involving officers being overlooked for promotion “because the system of promotion does not promote confidence in police officers.”Lalla recalled that during his tenure as PSC chairman, he had abolished the Promotions Advisory Board (PBA), which was the mechanism used for determining promotions in the Second Division.
Describing the PBA as defective, he claimed it was “full of favouritism” and presented avenues for political influence.
“The result was that it frustrated police officers who were being denied their promotions,” Lalla said, adding that the PBA was re-established after he left the commission.
“So, police officers were not judged on how they performed on the job but how many marks they got at an interview. So, if I do not like you, I give you two marks instead of giving you perhaps eight.”
Referring to the view that Gibbs and Ewatski may have buckled under public pressure, Lalla suggested there were many factors — not just the performance of the police commissioners — that impacted crime.
He asked, “We have had police commissioners in the past, how did they address the crime situation? We thought that bringing foreigners here would solve the problem when our local commissioners were not even able to do it.”
Lalla bemoaned the lengthy and costly process that will likely be embarked upon in selecting a new police commissioner.
“We went into convoluted, costly and sophisticated system and what did it produce, two commissioners from Canada at tremendous cost to the taxpayer,” he said.
The respected senior counsel advocated a simpler procedure, employing sound principles in career management and succession planning for future leaders of the police service.
“That means that you will be training people in the police service who are potentially qualified to be police commissioners. You don’t go looking all over the place,” he said.
“You train people and provide incentives. You identify merit not on the basis of favouritism but performance. If they were to adhere to those simple principles of management, we would have no problem.”
Lalla also lamented that after 50 years of independence “we are still in search of a police commissioner we cannot produce locally.
“Is that a good or bad thing?” he asked. “What does it say about us? Do we have the potential or don’t we. We are left now in the same position we were in before they came to Trinidad.”
Giving a civil perspective to the issue, retired head of the public service, Reginald Dumas, argued that the country was not fair to Gibbs and his deputy.
“The country felt that because we brought these two people in from outside that, therefore, the crime and the murder rate would drop. The logic in that argument escapes me because if somebody is liming at a bar and somebody drives up and shoots somebody, how do you blame the Commissioner of Police for that? How is it his fault?” Dumas asked, adding that Gibbs was also the target of what he considered to be unfair attacks from ministers as well as the Police Social and Welfare Association in relation to his handling of the crime situation.
“The population generally was expecting too much. They were basically saying that crime is Gibbs’ responsibility, but it is our responsibility. That is the trouble with Trinidad and Tobago. We all have rights, but when we talk about responsibilities, they would say, ‘Look, how much you paying him.”’ Further, Dumas wondered, with Gibbs’ departure, who the population would blame if the crime rate continued to escalate.
He said, “Crime has been escalating in this country long before Gibbs arrived. How can we reasonably expect anybody, especially someone from outside that we brought in, who is not familiar with the culture to cause the crime rate to drop. Is that a reasonable position?”
Dumas, who felt that the Canadian officers were encouraged to resign, believes that Gibbs was not being allowed to fulfil his role as police commissioner as outlined in the Constitution. As a result, Gibbs found obstacles everywhere, the retired diplomat observed.
“It seems to me that part of the Constitution that gives him the authority to manage the police service was not being respected by the Government and if you have complete power to manage — this is not a question of policy now, policy is set by the Government — but within that policy framework you have managers, like a minister, for instance, who comes to his ministry and issues a policy as approved by Cabinet and the permanent secretary and the other public servants have to carry it out. They are the managers, so to speak,” Dumas said.
“Here, in the Constitution, the Police Commissioner is given ‘specific’ and ‘complete’ power because those are the words used in the Constitution, to manage the service. If he has complete power, how are you saying that he must not do this and that. You are then flying in the face of the Constitution, which is the supreme law of the land.”
On the other hand, Dumas told Sunday Newsday that Gibbs was not entirely faultless.
“He did not seem to be the kind of person who could bring people together or talk to people,” he said.
Using the 21st century policing initiative as an example, Dumas said, “If you are going to have an initiative like this, then you have to involve the people of the country because it is the people of the country you are working for.
“They are the ones who are traumatised by crime, but they also know who are the people in the community likely to be committing the crime and where to find them. So, you need them on your side, which means that you have to talk to them. But I have never heard of any town meeting to discuss the plan.”
A retired senior officer, who wished to remain anonymous, supported the view that Gibbs erred in his failure to effectively engage the population.
“I don’t think he indulged any strategies to win the community. Inherent in that has been his downfall,” the retired officer said.
Dumas said the Government, too, should take some blame for the unfortunate state of affairs since they had promised, in their manifesto, to reduce crime.
“The Government has been blaming Gibbs, but if you want to reduce crime, it is a whole complex of factors. You have to put a great deal of emphasis on the family and the school because it is a whole learning process,” he said.